The Making of a Tactical Athlete.

May 05, 2014 0 Comments

During preseason camp last year, the two college football teams that would ultimately wind up playing for the BCS title had at least one thing in common. Each had met Navy Capt. Tom Chaby. Auburn and Florida State coaches invited Chaby to speak to their teams, knowing their players would sit up a little straighter and listen more attentively when a man who once commanded SEAL Team 5 stood at the front of the room.

Chaby delivered his message and answered questions from rapt audiences in Auburn, Ala., and Tallahassee, Fla. But he didn't go to those campuses solely to give pep talks. To help him in his current job, Chaby wanted to pick the brains of coaches and support staffers. He wanted to examine the organizational structures that help elite athletes succeed with the hope that he might generate ideas to take to his employer and help 18,525 elite soldiers.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="298.0"]At the Exos facility, a rehabbing soldier does a drill originally designed for football linemen. Bill Frakes/SI At the Exos facility, a rehabbing soldier does a drill originally designed for football linemen. Bill Frakes/SI

Chaby directs the Preservation of the Force and Family initiative, a multi-pronged effort by all the branches of the United States military to better prepare special operations soldiers for battle and take higher-quality care of them when they return home. These elite groups -- the SEALs, the Army's Rangers, Green Berets and Night Stalkers and the Air Force's Special Tactics teams -- are often the first sent into combat zones, and their members routinely risk their lives in missions deemed too specialized or too dangerous for more conventional troops. Chaby's group is tasked with finding better ways to handle the physical, psychological, social and spiritual pressures faced by elite soldiers. For the physical piece, the military has learned that one set of organizations has already discovered the ideal organizational structure -- major college and professional sports teams.

Since POTFF was formed in 2010 to deal with the issues created by 10 years of constant combat, Chaby and his team have worked to make the support personnel for the military's special operations forces more closely resemble the support staff of an NFL or Major League Baseball team. They are working to place strength coaches, dieticians, athletic trainers and physical therapists with each unit for the same reasons college and pro teams have done the same with their athletes. They want workouts and diets designed for the job at hand. Just as a football team would want to build beefy tailbacks with explosive, fast-twitch burst to best handle a series of four- to six-second plays, the SEALs or Rangers might want to build lighter, leaner, high-stamina soldiers who may have to spend days traversing the mountains of Afghanistan with limited food. Both groups want to prevent minor, nagging injuries with proper training and care. Both groups also want to rehabilitate major injuries quickly and effectively so that patients can get back on the field.

"We took that professional or collegiate sports model, and we're molding it to figure out how that works in the tactical setting," said Chris Knerl, an exercise physiologist who now serves as a human performance advisor for Air Force Special Operations Command in Mary Esther, Fla.

The difference is that one field has far greater stakes than the other. So, it would make sense that the military's elite units would have at least the same resources as a decent college football team. Unfortunately, they don't have them. Alex Lincoln is a former Auburn linebacker who now runs The Eagle Fund, a charitable program that offers injured soldiers -- mostly special operations forces -- a chance to rehab at the facility run by Exos and orthopedic surgeon James Andrews in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Lincoln, who has worked with injured soldiers since 2010, understands both worlds well. His assessment of the military's training resources prior to the inception of the POTFF program? "Less than what a good high school program would have," he said.

In the past, training facilities and guidance varied wildly from unit to unit. Some had athletic trainers assigned to them. Others didn't. The soldiers who led training relied on their own personal preferences rather than science. "Whatever the person that was leading the physical training liked, that's what you did," said Lincoln, who has worked with special operations soldiers who remained in their units into their 50s.

That is slowly changing as POTFF and private initiatives such as The Eagle Fund grow. The military has hired the same kind of support personnel sports teams have -- often from sports teams. Knerl used to be a one-man support team and now runs a 53-person operation. Don Kessler worked as an athletic trainer for the Naval Academy, Rutgers, Princeton and San Diego State. Since 2011, Kessler has worked with the Navy SEALs in Coronado, Calif. Mike Sanders now serves as the THOR3 human performance coordinator for the Army's 7th Special Forces Group. Before he was hired by the Army, Sanders was the strength and conditioning coordinator at the University of Denver. "At the end of the day, we have the same physiology and biology," Sanders said. "The cool thing about the human body is that the human body is the most important weapon." Chaby puts it even more succinctly. "Humans," he said, "are more important than hardware."

The military spends a lot of money on sophisticated weaponry. The current cost estimate for the fleet of F-35 Strike Fighter planes being amassed by the branches of the U.S. military is $391.2 billion. With a target of 2,443 planes, that's an average cost of $160.1 million a plane. But what does the military spend to maintain the most versatile weapons in its arsenal? This year, the human performance prong of the POTFF program received an appropriation of $26 million after requesting $46 million. Ensuring every special operations soldier has access to more advanced training and rehab services will require more money, but Chaby is confident a cold calculation of costs would show a savings in medical and training costs on the back end.

In the military, every asset costs something. For a SEAL officer with 10 years of Naval service, his training -- not including his salary -- has cost taxpayers an average of $1,039,930. An officer in one of the Army's special forces units with 10 years of service costs an average of $847,082 to train. If such a soldier suffers a career-ending injury that costs him 10-15 years as an active special operations soldier, that money essentially goes to waste. Even worse, the military loses valuable experience. "When a guy gets hurt, what's going on between his ears is priceless," Lincoln said. "You can't afford to lose that."

One former SEAL is certain that he'd be a current SEAL if he would have had access to the training tools made available by The Eagle Fund. "I'll put it to you like this," Marcus Luttrell said. "If I'd had this place back when I was a young frogman and after when I got shot, I'd probably still be an active-duty frogman. That's how significant this program is."

"If I'd had this place back when I was a young frogman and after when I got shot, I'd probably still be an active-duty frogman," Marcus Luttrell said. "That's how significant this program is."

Luttrell is the author of Lone Survivor, an account of the costliest day in the history of the U.S. military's special operations groups. Eleven SEALs and eight of the Army's Night Stalkers died on June 28, 2005 after Luttrell's four-man team was attacked and then a helicopter sent to rescue the SEALs was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. In the process of escaping the attack, Luttrell sustained a laundry list of injuries including a gunshot wound, a broken back, a crushed hand, torn knee ligaments and a torn rotator cuff.

Luttrell's rehab didn't truly begin working until 2010, when he first traveled to the Exos -- then called Athletes Performance -- facility in Gulf Breeze on an invitation from The Eagle Fund. There, trainers and strength coaches more accustomed to working with future NFL draft picks and pro athletes treated Luttrell more like an athlete than a patient. "You have these collegiate and pro athletes here getting in shape to do a job. Well, that's exactly why I'm here," said Luttrell, who trained at Exos for several weeks earlier this year while future first-round picks Jadeveon Clowney and Eric Ebron trained a few feet away. "I think that door swings both ways. When you see these guys here -- especially the amputees -- busting their butts trying to get back on the line, to get back to work, it's got to be motivational." Luttrell said the coaches and trainers at Exos helped heal his body and reduce chronic pain. Luttrell said the reduction in pain also helped reduce mental issues that psychiatrists had previously tried and failed to treat with prescription medication.

Luttrell is watching the progress of POTFF, because he wants all special operations soldiers to have the resources he eventually found. He just hopes they can utilize them while still in the service so they can extend their careers. "You've got to think about how much money you dump into us from day one of training to the time we get to our team and deploy. If you get a guy who has an injury and that ends his career, well, that's just money thrown down the drain," Luttrell said. "This program and the stuff that's implemented out here, you have the ability to not only heal the operator up and get him back on the line, you save that money you put into him and you save that asset."

Army Staff Sgt. George Perez hopes someday the military will institute a program similar to POTFF for any soldier who might face combat. Perez came to Exos late last year after receiving an Eagle Fund scholarship. Unlike most Eagle Fund beneficiaries, however, Perez was never a member of a special operations unit. He began his Army career as a paratrooper in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. In 2003, at age 19, Perez found himself in Iraq. On Sept. 14 of that year, as his unit rolled through an area near Fallujah, an IED blasted the Humvee in which Perez rode. He looked down to see the lower section of his left leg bent upward over his knee. Doctors initially thought they had saved the leg, but an infection forced an amputation below the knee. Perez, from Carteret, N.J., refused to quit on the Army. He taught himself to walk using a prosthetic, and he re-enlisted about a year later. Perez remains on active duty, jumping out of planes for the Army's Golden Knights parachute team. But for years, Perez struggled with the direct and indirect effects of his injury.

Strenuous physical activity would leave his body wrecked. He overcompensated with his right leg, and his misaligned lower half led to chronic back pain. After a few years, medications couldn't dull the pain anymore. Perez had resigned himself to the pain, but his visit to Exos changed his outlook. Trainers there got him moving again. They forced him to strengthen his left thigh, which helped balance his body and alleviate back pain. Shortly before leaving Exos to return to duty, Perez ran a mile without pain for the first time since the blast. Perez will never forget how he felt when he realized that he might be able to live and serve without pain. "I'm going to talk to you like a soldier," he said. "Holy [expletive]!" Perez was amazed at how quickly advanced training helped him. "I think I could run circles around some of the other soldiers if I was able to do this," he said.

While advanced services for the entirety of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines would require a significant up-front investment, Pentagon officials might be able to use the results of the POTFF program should they attempt a cost-benefit analysis. Even before POTFF started, Scott Lephart and the Neuromuscular Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh were studying injury rates in the military. Near the turn of the century, Lephart read a journal article that examined the most common types of injuries suffered by soldiers in combat and training. Lephart realized those injuries weren't all too different from the ones suffered by the college and pro sports teams his group had already been studying for 15 years. So, Lephart approached military leaders with an idea for a long-term research project: Study soldiers with the hope that the data could be combined with the information researchers had already learned in the sports world to help the military better prevent and treat injuries. "You've got this problem," Lephart remembered saying. "We've already developed methodology to find a solution to address the problem. Why don't we partner and start doing some research to help you reduce these injuries?"

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="298.0"]Army Staff Sgt. George Perez can run without pain after working with the trainers at Exos. Bill Frakes/SI Army Staff Sgt. George Perez can run without pain after working with the trainers at Exos. Bill Frakes/SI

The NMRL now has six labs at military installations around the country, and the information collected has helped programs like POTFF determine how best to allocate their money. The data has shown some promising trends. According to figures provided by the United States Special Operations Command, prior to 2010, less than 10 percent of students who were injured during the SEALs' Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training class rehabbed their injuries, re-entered the program and became SEALs. Since '12, 30 percent of new SEALs graduated even after suffering injuries in training. Rehabbing more similarly to athletes allowed more prospective SEALs to recover, re-enter the program and graduate. Meanwhile, training like a sports team also appears to be reducing injuries. A study of 14,000 non-battle injuries suffered by Army special forces soldiers between '11 and '13 revealed that 57 percent occurred as soldiers trained on their own, while only six percent occurred as soldiers trained within the structure of the POTFF human performance initiative.

Those who work with the soldiers hope the numbers will get even better as they gain more experience in the military environment. Sanders, who assists the Army's special forces units with their strength training, also believes more experience will allow the military "coaches" to design workouts that will make soldiers more effective in battle. "We have to know what the science is. What is the need of that individual -- the SEAL, the Green Beret, the combat controller? We have to know what their needs are, and we have to train them for that," Sanders said. "What we're faced with is I don't know when the competition is going to be. I don't know what the rules of the game are going to be. And I don't know exactly, physiologically speaking, what my guys are going to need when they get into their jobs."

Sanders and the others who came from the athletic world learned immediately that the "competition" their tactical athletes face is no game. Sometimes, the people they train don't come home. "It's what drives us," Sanders said. Meanwhile, the Air Force's Knerl said he routinely gets inquiries from acquaintances in the sports realm wondering if the military is hiring. The jobs may not necessarily pay as well, but they do offer a sense of mission. "We're doing it because we want to serve," Sanders said. "We want to give back."

The question now is whether the military will continue to provide the resources to offer its elite soldiers the kind of training and rehab capabilities that football players at mid-level FBS programs now regard as a given. Chaby hopes the program can grow, because he believes it will save the country money in the long run. He said he isn't asking for "gold-plated training." He only wants what his fellow special operations soldiers need to do their jobs. "We're going to milk these guys for everything they're worth," Chaby said, "so we owe it to them."

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